So Yun Ahn never thought she would work in pandemic relief. Her time as a first-year Ph.D. student at USC was mostly spent developing portable phone charging stations for skid row. The idea came from interviewing a few homeless community members who said their main issue wasn’t access to phones but instead finding somewhere to charge them.

But then the COVID-19 virus evolved into a pandemic, placing Los Angeles’ homeless community in acute danger. Suddenly, Ahn had to pivot.

“Many of them don’t have access to healthcare,” she said. “The crisis will hit the community very quick and very hard.”

She acted fast. Together with the five other students in her communication class, she worked with leaders from the Los Angeles Community Action Network — a local grassroots humanitarian organization — to identify the most critical needs for homeless residents during the pandemic. LA CAN is unique because many of its members have strong ties to LA’s homeless community. So, working together, they decided hand-washing was a top priority.

“Washing hands can be a big problem for people living on the streets,” Ahn said.

Within hours, the students scrapped their spring break plans and got to work. Ahn and her colleagues started by building portable hand-washing stations from online do-it-yourself guides. They then created a digital campaign to show users how to make their own. Soon, LA CAN members distributed the stations across skid row and told community members that they were there to help.

“In one week, we did everything,” she said.

Ahn is enrolled in COMM 653: “Research, Practice, and Social Change.” Led by Professor of Communication and Spatial Sciences, Francois Bar, the course aims to fuse communication strategy with on-the-ground aid and training to build sustainable support models.

“It’s not just a question of bringing the devices, but also to design some social organization and community support that will make it work in the long term,” Bar said.

The class all had their projects to work on, like Ahn’s charging station, but agreed to put those aside when the virus hit. They saw that the need for long-term solutions would only grow as the novel coronavirus worsened and kept more humanitarian relief workers isolated in their homes, away from skid row.

“All of the service providers have basically pulled out of skid row,” Bar said. “They’re finding themselves very isolated generally, so no one is there to help them.”

The eruption of COVID-19 mixed with a growing homeless population in Los Angeles to create a drastic need for hand-washing stations on skid row. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) reported in 2019 that 4,757 homeless residents are on skid row. Many of these residents live near each other, sleep in tents, and lack necessary sanitary equipment.

The city deployed over 100 hand-washing stations across Los Angeles on March 17 to help stifle the virus’ spread, but those on the ground believe it hasn’t been enough. First, there’s an average of about one new station for nearly every 298 homeless community members on skid row. Then there’s the issue of functionality.

“Nearly half of them had no water,” said Pete White, the founder and executive director of LA CAN. “Most of them were dirty, and community members could not remember when water was last placed in them.”

White also believes the city has been too slow in its efforts to treat skid row during the pandemic. On March 18, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to place thousands of shelter beds in city recreation centers for the homeless who have the highest risk of exposure. At the same time, city officials were held to the fire last week by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to deliver a cohesive plan to manage Los Angeles’ homeless population during the virus.

In White’s view, this shows disorganization and a lack of immediate, long-term solutions for those most endangered by COVID-19.

“This pandemic is a public health crisis, not a political opportunity,” he said. “We need to do all we can right now to protect people, but let’s make sure we’re doing it in a way that sets up infrastructure before the pandemic blows away.”

The solution for Ahn and her classmates is working with LA CAN to distribute as many hand-washing stations as possible while setting up the infrastructure necessary for them to survive for the long term. This solution means not only building stations themselves, but also creating a digital map of their location, and where users can post updates of the status of these stations. They recently launched their official campaign on Facebook.

Bar describes this as creating a “bottom-up” system.

“It’s trying to organize the community so that you place the station with somebody who can watch them and tend for them," he said.

The class plans to help LA CAN expand their work into areas beyond hand washing, as well. Setting up tents, launching other communication initiatives, and performing more on-the-ground outreach are all on the docket.

As they continue to draft new projects, Ahn aims to keep in mind the lesson she learned from creating her charging station: the most crucial perspective comes from those who will be the most affected.

“Most of the projects that we’re doing with LA CAN are the ideas of real homeless people,” she said. “You should listen first because I bet you wouldn’t expect what the real challenge is. It’s a very precious experience.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that LAHSA reported there to be 3,766 homeless residents living on skid Row in 2019. That actual number is 4,757. As a result, there is one new sanitary station in skid Row for nearly every 298 community members.

The article also said that the class plans on making tents and doing on-the-ground outreach. They do not. They will help LA CAN do so, while working remotely.

Annenberg Media sincerely apologizes for this error.